Budapest Business Journal | November 25 – December 8, 2016
Being Depeses in Hungary
Figuring out just how British electronic band Depeche Mode became quite such a cult hit in Hungary. DAVID HOLZER
The first time I heard the music of Depeche Mode in Hungary was at a Sauna Séance. It fitted perfectly with the dimmed purple lights and the sense of being subtly tortured as part of a mysterious ritual. I wondered how the Sauna Master came to be familiar with such an obscure track. A week or so later, I was watching a Hungarian TV show where minor celebrities imitate superstars. It dawned ADVERTISEMENT
on me that the reason the woman I was watching had a mascara beard was because she was meant to be Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode. I then realized she was singing a mangled version of “Personal Jesus”. It was becoming clear to me that Depeche Mode occupies an unusual position in Hungarian pop culture. I wanted to find out why. The first person I spoke to was Hungarian László Kovács, a record collector and the founder of Moiras Records, a music label that specializes in small run LP releases of obscure Hungarian rock, folk and jazz music.
First stirrings in Hungary I’m listening to Depeche Mode as I write this and their music does match perfectly with a misty grey fall day in Hungary. It conjures up comfortingly melancholic images of shrouded figures
drifting through forests that have grown up through abandoned factories. I have my own theory why Mode music is so popular in Hungary – something to do with this combination of the clankingly industrial with romantic and mystical. But I was curious as to what Kovács thought. His answer was rather more down to earth than I expected. “To put it simply,” Kovács said, “they were in the right place at the right time to have their art appreciated in Hungary. In the early ’80s, Hungarian music fans were hungry for modern pop music. Depeche Mode’s first gig in Hungary was at a small football ground called Volán Pálya on the northern outskirts of Budapest on July 23, 1985. It was one of very few played in Hungary by a Western band at that time. Despite state radio rarely playing their music, the show was heavily promoted. Also, the albums “Construction Time Again” and “A Broken Frame” were available at
a modest price, thanks to the Hungarian state record company which had a monopoly and imported cheap Indian and Yugoslav albums bought in bulk. These two Depeche Mode albums were imported from Yugoslavia, where they’d been licensed to RTL Records, a label owned by TV station RTV Ljubljana. So the show was very well attended. Over the years, their records and occasional gigs built up a mystique around the band and they became a cult here.” Depeche Mode’s music also turned out to reproduce well on cassette tapes. Homemade cassette tapes of the band were widely circulated, which helped to grow their underground following. German teen magazine Bravo was another factor in the band’s rise. Bravo could be bought in Yugoslavia, rather more open to the West than Hungary. Teenagers who bought Bravo back from Yugoslavia instantly elevated their cool status. Depeche Mode was a favorite
Black tights bad
of the magazine and the band’s posters changed hands for eye-watering sums. This chance combination of factors helped Depeche Mode become far more popular than most other Western bands. Depeche Mode has played in Hungary nine times since 1985, the most recent being 2013. Their biggest show to date was at Ferenc Puskás Stadium in the summer of 2009, where they played to 36,000 people.
Fan Club keeps the faith The Hungarian Depeche Mode Fan Club was formed in 1987. Since then it’s organised more than 300 parties for about 300,000 people. Although fans are getting older, around 1,000 still turn out for every event the HDMFC holds. Members of the fan club told me, “The first gig at the Volán Pálya stadium in 1985 had a deep impact on us as teenagers. This was when we were reborn as ‘Depeches’ (Depeses). Depeche Mode were neither pop nor rock. They simply didn’t fit in and nor did we. We weren’t poppers or rockers, we were Depeses!” Computer programmer Zoltán Susán, now 45 and married with two children, had a similar experience. “I lived in Salgótarján, 120 km from Budapest but an enormous distance culturally. It was the spring of 1985 and I had some money to buy a record. I found the Yugoslav editions of “A Broken Frame” and “Construction Time Again” in our local bookstore – there was no record shop. I ADVERTISEMENT
Depeche Mode band mates Martin Gore and Dave Gahan with members of the Hungarian Depeche Mode Fan Club. remembered hearing the name Depeche Mode and bought “Construction Time Again”, listened to it and fell in love. I asked my parents for more money and went back for “A Broken Frame” the next day. I met other DM fans in school who had tapes of the band and we shared.
Being a fan of a world-class alternative or ‘offsider’ band gave me a special feeling.” I discovered just how special this feeling was when I found out that my friend Böbe was also a Depeche Mode fanatic.
Depeche Mode gave thousands of young Hungarians a sense of identity and a shared connection, which still exists today. Back in the mid-’80s, immediately after the end of socialism, this was so powerful it scared the authorities. Böbe was part of that first wave who became fans in 1985. She was one of three sisters who cut their hair short at the back and sides and shaved in the letters DM. This was a big deal in Hungary. To give you some idea of how daring it was to be Depeses, Böbe told me that, because her grandmother who raised her was easy-going, she could wear black tights, one of the signs that she was a fanatic. “Most of my friends,” she said, “had conservative parents and were only allowed to wear brown tights. I was very lucky.” Böbe told me that she discovered the band not long after her mother died. For her, the music of the band offered answers and escape. “We thought their music sounded like praying,” she said. After she told me this, Böbe closed her eyes and listened to the music, a small smile on her face. Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Hungarian Depeche Mode Fan Club, making its year-end party on December 29 at the Akvárium Big Hall and Bar particularly special. If you’re curious about what it means to be Depeses in Hungary, you’ll be more than welcome. Find out more at www.akvariumklub.hu.